This essay is running as part of the 2019 Uproxx Music Critics Poll. Explore the results here.
All of my enemies started off friends
Help me hold onto you.
— Taylor Swift, “The Archer”
Things get harder, and easier, when you love an artist as much as I love Taylor Swift.
Never is an artist more yours than when it feels like the mainstream doesn’t know who they are yet, and during Taylor’s initial first four albums, I adored her uninterruptedly, all on my own. Or so I thought. While she was blowing up in country music, the genre’s niche positioning made her early albums feel like well-kept secrets. Just one year ahead in age, I happily collected country-pop anthems that spoke to my existence in sweet, open-hearted poetics, contentedly cataloguing the journey of a young woman, a topic the rest of the genre seemed eager to ignore. In the early 2000s, I frequently found myself explaining the place she held in the songwriting world to those not in the know, and later, I was satisfied to ride or die for the artist who had been unfairly denied her roses for an early entry of best album of the decade, Red, in 2012.
For her last few album releases, though, I’ve been nervous. Like, butterflies in the pit of my stomach, sweaty palms, what if it’s ending? nervous. 1989, Reputation, and Lover, each felt like they had the weight of the world riding on them — Lover most of all, and perhaps it did have the most riding on it.. And, Lover did more than any of them did. As post-Red declarations of Swift’s artistry raised the stakes on the national stage, strange interactions with Kanye West, Katy Perry, and even her ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris set into motion a dizzying drama that threatened to consume Taylor herself.
Navigating Swift’s shifting place in the music industry over the course of the last five years has been a trip, to say the least. Between a transition into pop, fighting off a feud with the (former) most popular rapper in the world (and his reality star wife) and navigating her own interpersonal relationships, the campy, breakneck response of Reputation — following up her wildly successful pop debut, 1989 — functioned as the perfect stop-gap in an era that brooked no comebacks.
Objectively, then, this year’s release, her seventh full-length album, Lover, is a renewed high-water mark for an artist who has faced both unabashed adoration and surprisingly emotional negatively-charged criticism in the last few years. Taylor’s new record, landing at No. 11 on our year-end critic’s poll, is a testament to how the pendulum has swung back in her favor, and her uncanny ability to rise above the love, hate, and indifference to continue writing powerful, tender songs, a testament to the resilience successful women must necessarily cultivate in a markedly sexist field.
So why didn’t I love it?
These days, criticism of Taylor is everywhere, sure, and has been since her fall from grace began right around the end of 2016. Facing a community of people who insist you’re unacceptable, untalented, or too damaged to engineer new possibilities for yourself is a narrative I’m all too familiar with, so the first song I loved on Lover was the one that grapples with this directly. On “The Archer,” Taylor uses dramatic, stripped-down strings and gloomy synths to build the tension, keeping the listener’s focus trained on the vulnerable lyrics. The song addresses accepting yourself, flaws and all, while also admitting when it’s time to change. Spooked, as usual, by an early lead single I didn’t connect with (“Me!” is fine in the context of the album, as always, but remember how jarring “Shake It Off” was when it was all we knew of 1989?), the presence of this downtempo, introspective single was proof that the Taylor I knew and loved would still be taking the wheel on Lover.
And while other early standouts like the classic love ballad “Cornelia Street” and intricate meta-drama “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” appealed to me, I didn’t fall in, I didn’t love the album like I hoped I would. Still, I kept listening anyway, eventually finding new connections, and especially returning to “The Man” almost every day. In contrast to the self-reckoning of “The Archer,” this song, which directly precedes it on the tracklist, acknowledges all of the cultural reasons Taylor faces more scrutiny and criticism than plenty of her male peers. It reinforced so many frustrations I’ve experienced about the insane double standards for women, and functioned as a gateway drug into the crisp, dreamy production that dominates Lover.
So the weeks and months passed, and Lover was still on repeat in my car, at work, or in the gym, even if it was just to hear “The Man” one more time. Then, finally, I started branching out. “Cruel Summer,” a heated, shimmering co-write with St. Vincent blistered like nothing Taylor had written before, expanding and focusing past impulses. “False God” proved she could take esoteric jazz-pop about the perils of adult relationships and make it accessible, even to teenagers. “You Need To Calm Down” was a tongue-in-cheek, self-assured rebuttal against both Taylor haters and those who refuse to accept the beauty and importance of the thriving LGBTQ community, political and personal statement rolled into one. And, as circumstances turned toward the end of my year, “Death By A Thousand Cuts” was the perfect goodbye song for an important relationship gone sour — and a reminder that no one can make a song about lost love churn and ache the way Taylor can.
Suddenly, I remembered a similar slow-burn process for becoming a fan of both 1989 and Reputation. Initially, I’d insisted I didn’t like these new albums as much as my instant obsession with Swift’s early work, but gradually, each one of them became a beloved entry into the canon. It just took me longer. As the thesis of Lover came together in my mind — an album about learning to fight for yourself, and preserve the things you love, while still being able to accept criticism, recognize patterns, and put other people’s needs first — everything fell into place. Looking back on it though, it makes sense, all the greatest loves take time to grow. My feelings for Lover didn’t happen overnight. But now that they’re here, I’m still marveling at the afterglow.